In The Spotlight: Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body

>In The Spotlight: Carl Hiaasen's Skinny DipHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Life in a religious community can hold a real fascination for people, especially people who aren’t familiar with such places. They’re a bit mysterious and some are quite closed off. And when a group of disparate people live in the same community, there’s all sorts of potential for conflict. So it’s little wonder that places such as monasteries and convents can be so effective as settings for crime fiction. To get a sense of what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight today on Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body, the first of her Inspector C.D. Sloan series.

Early one morning at the Convent of St. Anselm, Sister Mary St. Gertrude is going about her duty of waking the others, including the Mother Superior, the other Sisters, the novices and the postulants. She finds the room of Sister Mary St. Anne empty and at first, she thinks that Sister Anne has simply gotten up extra early, but when she doesn’t turn up, a search is made for her. Her body is discovered at the bottom of the stairs to the convent’s basement so reluctantly, it’s decided to call in the police.

Berebury Police Inspector C.D. Sloan and his assistant Constable William Crosby take the case and begin their investigation. It’s soon very clear that Sister Anne was murdered, as opposed to dying from an accidental fall. What’s more, the evidence shows that she was not killed in the basement; her body was moved there later.

Following the most obvious possibility, Sloan and Crosby interview everyone in the convent to find out where each one was and when each one last saw the victim. But it doesn’t seem likely that anyone in the convent killed Sister Anne. For one thing, she hadn’t made any enemies there. For another, there’s very little real privacy in this convent. It would have been difficult for any of the other nuns to kill Sister Anne without being seen. And yet, she’s left what turns out to be a considerable amount of money to the convent…

There are also possibilities among the members of Sister Anne’s family of origin. She’s the daughter of a wealthy family that owns a successful manufacturing company. If she’d lived, she’d have had a major share of the company holdings and could determine company decisions. And more than one person would rather that not happen. What’s more, Sister Anne’s mother has disowned her and has nothing but bitterness and contempt at her choice of the religious life.

And then there’s the nearby Agricultural Institute. On Guy Fawkes Day, some of the students celebrate with a traditional guy-burning. This time, though, the guy is wearing a nun’s habit and what turn out to be Sister Anne’s spectacles. So Sloan and Crosby have to consider the students who were responsible for the guy.

Sloan and Crosby get closer to the truth about Sister Anne’s death, only to be faced with another murder. This second victim knew more than was safe to know, and the detectives have to move quickly to ensure that no-one else is killed. In the end, they find out who killed both victims, and trace the murders to an event in the past.

In many ways, this is a traditional whodunit. There’s a cast of suspects, there are some likely motives, and there are clues. There’s also a dose of ‘howdunit’ about the novel. How did the habit and glasses get to the Institute? And why do at least two Sisters say that Sister Anne was last seen at Vespers on the night of her death, when forensic evidence shows that she was killed just after dinner – a difference of nearly two hours? If the killer isn’t a nun, how did the killer get into the convent without being seen?  Readers who enjoy intellectual puzzlers will be pleased at the clues, questions and ‘red herrings’ Aird provides.

This is also a traditional mystery in that it doesn’t focus heavily on the characters, although we do get to know some things about some of the nuns (more on that shortly). We don’t learn much about Sloan or Crosby, for instance, and this means that readers who are tired of melancholic, demon-haunted cops with terrible pasts will be pleased. On the other hand, readers who prefer character-driven novels where relationships are explored in depth will be disappointed.

Another important element in this novel is its convent setting. We get an ‘inside look’ at life at a convent of the era (the book was published in 1966), with its traditions, rituals, and daily customs. Convents and other religious institutions have come under a great deal of criticism in the last decades for all kinds of abuses, some of them horrific. But the Convent of St. Anselm is not portrayed that way. The nuns are not portrayed as perfect or all-knowing, but they are portrayed in a positive light, as humans who are trying to live the life they believe God has called them to live. Even when Sloan interviews a former nun who’s left the religious life, he doesn’t get a sense of bitterness or hatred. As Sloan and Crosby look into the background of some of the nuns, we also get a sense of what these women might have been like before they joined the order, and what might have caused them to do so.

Neither Sloan nor Crosby has been in a convent before, and the Sisters are certainly not accustomed to dealing with a police investigation. So there’s an element in the novel of mutual mistrust, at least at first. Gradually that changes as each ‘side’ gets to know the other a little.

There isn’t a strong element of violence in the story, so readers who prefer to avoid brutality will be pleased. That said though, this isn’t exactly a happy, light story. The Sisters have all been deeply shaken by the death of one of their own, especially when the possibility arises that another one of their own could be responsible. And when we learn the truth about what happened, it solves the mystery but doesn’t make things all right again. Still, you couldn’t call this a bleak novel either. There’s a sense that life will go on.

The Religious Body is a traditional kind of detective story that offers an inside look at life in a mid-1960s convent. The setting and atmosphere are quite distinctive and the convent building itself is a very effective setting. The motive for the murders makes sense, and I didn’t feel (but feel free to differ with me if you do) that I had to give up too much disbelief. But what’s your view? Have you read The Religious Body? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 13 January/Tuesday 14 January – The Case of the Missing Books – Ian Sansom

Monday 20 January/Tuesday 21 January – The Boy in the Suitcase – Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis.

Monday 27 January /Tuesday 28 January – The Guards – Ken Bruen


Filed under Catherine Aird, The Religious Body

27 responses to “In The Spotlight: Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body

  1. I do enjoy books that feature religious communities. Some of Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian books feature an order of nuns.

    I did like Religious Body. I have read that one and The Stately Home Murder, which is the third in the series and I want to read more of the series. Great overview of this book, Margot.

    • Tracy – Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and it’s very good to hear you’ve liked what you’ve read of this series. I like the Sloan character, and this particular novel does give the reader a good look at life in a 1960s-era religious community. Thanks also for mentioning Jane Haddam; she’s anothyer author whose work I want to spotlight.

  2. Which reminds me that I have yet to read anything by Aird! I slink away in shame …

  3. I love books set in convents, they really attract me, so this one sounds like a must-read. I have read a couple of Catherine Aird books, without ever following her or looking at the sequence, and I have always enjoyed them. On the list it goes….

    • Moira – I really think you would like this one. Not only is the convent life done quite well (in my opinion), but the story’s solid too (or so I think anyway). I hope that if you get to read this one, you’ll enjoy it.

  4. This sounds an interesting book to read Margot, though the lack of well drawn characters could turn this into a no book for me. I could try a sample though.

    • Rebecca – I will say that the plot is featured more than the characters. Still it is as you say an interesting book and a solid depiction of convent life. Hopefully if you try a sample, you’ll get a sense of that and see if it’s for you.

  5. I think I’ve read this but so long ago I’m sure I could read it again without any trouble. It’s going on my list anyway – I do have a bit of a soft spot for those religious settings.

    • Bernadette – I’ve got books like that too, that I’ve read so long ago that re-reading them would be like reading them for the first time. This one’s not a big investment of time either; my edition is just 168 pages. And religious settings can be excellent backgrounds for novels. I can see why you like them.

  6. Margot, I’m a fan of Aird’s novels. Sloan is, I think, a fairly endearing character; his troubles with his “assistant” Constable Crosby (known to others in the force as “the defective constable” and his boss, Superintendent Leyes, usually manage to add some humor to what could have been fairly grim plots. I’m so glad you enjoyed “The Religious Body” – it’s not necessary to start this series at the beginning, but it certainly won’t hurt!

    • Les – There is an interesting dynamic isn’t there among Sloan, Crosby and Lee. I like Sloan’s character too, and you’re right that Aird does a good job of keeping the novel from getting too unhappy.

  7. I’ve read Pelagia and the White Bulldog: The First Sister Pelagia Mystery, by Boris Akunin, translated from the original Russian by Andrew Bromfield and published in English in 2006. Although it can be quite dour in parts, the characterisation of the detective-nun, Sister Pelagia, is quirky and witty. It’s the only book I’ve ever read that ends in mid-sentence (picked up in the second book, which I haven’t yet read).

    • Caron – Oh, now you’ve piqued my interest! I shall have to look that one up, as I do like quirky characters, and if there’s wit too, that makes it even better. Thanks very much for the suggestion.

      • It’s set in St Petersburg at the end of the 19th century. From the cover notes: “Sister Pelagia: bespectacled, freckled, woefully clumsy and astonishingly resourceful, is summoned by the Bishop of Zavolzhsk to investigate [a] bulldog’s death. But her investigation soon takes a far more sinister turn when the headless bodies of a man and a boy are pulled out of the river…”

  8. Sounds good, and I like the fact that the convent is portrayed in a positive light. I’m nearly as tired of the Catholic church always being shown as the villain as I am of drunken detectives!

    • FictionFan – It is an interesting intellectual puzzler. And I was pleased too that the nuns are not portrayed negatively. Not to minimise the abuses that have happened of course, but it has been done in fiction now. Just like the drunken detective.

  9. Col

    Seems interesting, but I will pass for now (probably for always TBH)…..too much other stuff waiting.

  10. Nan

    I just bought this! Will come back and read your post when I read the book.

  11. This is one of my favorite Aird novels, and it’s great to see a review of it. I’m afraid the “A” part of the bookshelves has been neglected of late.

  12. Pingback: Nautical naughtiness – Classic crime in the blogosphere, January 2014 | Past Offences

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